The company started with its own out-of-shape employees to spark a fitness revolution — as well as build confidence and camaraderie
By Jenn Abelson
| BOSTON GLOBE STAFF
JANUARY 11, 2012
‘‘I was horrified in the beginning and crying like a baby,’’ said Reebok executive Peggy Baker of her CrossFit classes. ‘‘But I still come.’’
CANTON – To be blunt, Peggy Baker is an overweight, middle-age diabetic. Until last year, she had never lifted a kettlebell or done a box jump in her life.
The 54-year-old is also a Reebok employee and the poster child for the company’s new mission: to get consumers moving by setting an example with its own workforce.
Baker is one of about 425 employees at Reebok who are taking part in a new fitness program that is transforming the sneaker maker’s Canton headquarters. Participants lost over 4,000 pounds collectively during 2011 – roughly the weight of an small SUV.
These workouts, called CrossFit, combine sprinting, gymnastics, powerlifting, kettlebell training, weightlifting, rowing, and medicine ball training, among other activities. The program is making waves at Reebok and gaining traction as one of the fastest-growing fitness movements in the United States. Reebok is capitalizing on the momentum with its first global marketing campaign featuring CrossFit, which will air during Sunday’s NFL divisional playoff between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
The TV spot will feature chiseled athletes, but it also aims to show that CrossFit is as much about community, confidence building, competition, and camaraderie as it is about exercise and training.
Baker, an information technology executive, reluctantly joined in May when the company’s president, Uli Becker – also out of shape – spotted her buying a soda in the company cafeteria and pressured her to give CrossFit a try.
Now, several times a week, the two work out together at a 6:30 a.m. class with other employees doing burpees, box jumps, clean and jerks, and other oddly named CrossFit moves. Baker has shed 67 pounds, reduced her insulin injections, and gained a new level of confidence.
“It’s changed everything,’’ Baker said. “I was horrified in the beginning and crying like a baby. I still feel sick to my stomach before I come to classes. But I still come.’’
CrossFit programs, intimidating to many but customized to any skill level, are offered at more than 3,000 gyms around the globe. Becker sees CrossFit as an opportunity to literally reshape himself and his workforce and once again put Reebok, which helped spearhead the aerobics craze of the 1980s, at the forefront of a fitness revolution.
“I was twice as big and fat as I am today,’’ said Becker, who has lost about 35 pounds over the past year. “I didn’t know CrossFit would be so big.’’
The company partnered with the CrossFit brand, which is based in California, in 2010 and decided to convert a brick warehouse at Reebok’s headquarters into a CrossFit “box,’’ or workout center, with six coaches and a variety of equipment.
Becker held meetings with top executives and department managers to get them on board – both as participants and to encourage employees to attend classes during the workday.
“At the first meeting, the managers were all skeptical about why they should give up the precious time of employees to go work out during the day,’’ said Matt O’Toole, Reebok’s chief marketing officer, who introduced Becker to the CrossFit brand. “We think it makes their productivity much better and it’s an important part of the success to make it accessible.’’
Don Hasselbeck, a former New England Patriots tight end who is now Reebok’s director of athlete service and strategy, said he sat with his arms crossed during these initial meetings.
“I had no interest in CrossFit and wasn’t convinced it was a good idea when we signed the deal,’’ Hasselbeck said. “It seemed so intense. I thought you had to be young and in shape.’’
He changed his mind during a Reebok meeting in Miami last year when the brand director of Korea challenged Hasselbeck (who weighed 290 pounds at the time) to a throwdown.
“It almost killed us,’’ Hasselbeck said.
He now attends CrossFit classes several times a week, usually at 11 a.m. or noon. Since April, he has lost 32 pounds and improved his flexibility and strength. Hasselbeck is not just a convert, but a full-fledged missionary.
“My idea is to find the people least likely to come,’’ he said.
One of his biggest feats: luring the redheaded Kevin Mahoney, a sales manager who weighed close to 280 pounds and was dubbed Big Red by Hasselbeck. Mahoney joined the two-week introductory program in June but was not sure he could stick with it.
“Everyone on my floor was involved. You kind of get sick of people talking about it so I decided to give it a try,’’ he said.
Mahoney said he is now hooked, attends classes three to four times a week, and jokes that he is “down 35 pounds or four dress sizes.’’
The CrossFit lifestyle has also helped Mahoney improve his diet. He has eliminated the “O’’s – Fritos, Doritos, and Oreos.
To keep up with demand at headquarters, Reebok built another workout space for CrossFit and has more than doubled the number of classes since last year.
The success in Canton – about 35 percent of the workforce is regularly taking CrossFit classes – prompted Reebok to launch these programs at 20 offices around the world. Other companies, such as Google, have expressed interest in setting up corporate CrossFit programs.
Andy Stumpf of CrossFit said the partnership with Reebok has helped elevate the brand, especially with Reebok’s sponsorship of the CrossFit Games. The games were aired for the first time on ESPN last year, and Reebok helped increase the purse prize to $250,000, from $25,000.
Reebok also began selling CrossFit footwear and apparel online last fall, and it expects to expand the line this year.
The shoes, for example, are wider in the front of the foot and flatter to help with lifting and squatting.
“We want to use Reebok’s large machine to spread the word about CrossFit,’’ Stumpf said. “And it’s hard to ignore the difference it’s making in Canton with the astounding amount of weight loss and people being more productive at work.’’